Archive for the ‘Science and Edumacation’ Category

Robot Cars and the Law

Friday, December 28th, 2012

As I often say about innovation, the technical problems are nothing compared to the pinhead legal problems. Verge has a good article up sorting through some of the legal and treaty issues (yes, treaty issues) involved in automated robotic cars. It’s definitely worth your time.

However…

The article seems unduly pessimistic to me. These are things that can be worked out — we have entire armies of lawyers in this country who stand to make millions getting everything sorted into legal precedent. And if these things prove to be safe — and I think they will — the economic pressure to work out the legal issues will be fierce.

The one thing that bothered me about the article was this:

The Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (1949) requires that drivers “shall at all times be able to control their vehicles,” and provisions against reckless driving usually require “the conscious and intentional operation of a motor vehicle.” Some of that is simple semantics, but other concerns are harder to dismiss. After a crash, drivers are legally obligated to stop and help the injured — a difficult task if there’s no one in the car.

As a result, most experts predict drivers will be legally required to have a person in the car at all times, ready to take over if the automatic system fails. If they’re right, the self-parking car may never be legal.

Did you see the subtext? The subtext is that if I’m in a crash with an automated car, there is no one around to render assistance to me.

Well, maybe. Bleeding out while unconscious or seriously injured would be a risk (although it’s not like pedestrians and bystanders are going to disappear). But being in a collision with a robot would have some advantages over being in one with a human:

  • One of the lessons taught in driver’s education is how to avoid accidents or, if unavoidable, minimize the damage (e.g., rear-ending someone instead of swerving into traffic or pedestrians). Robots can be made to optimize this much better than human beings.
  • A robot can not be knocked unconscious and can call for help. Even if its CPU were destroyed, it can be on a network that will recognize the dropout and call for assistance to the last known location.
  • An automated car will maintain an extremely detailed and objective record of the accident, making fault easy to determine.
  • An automated car will not get out and try to help injured passengers, true. But this isn’t always a good thing. It’s not unheard for helpful bystanders to drag people with spinal injuries into para- or quadriplegia because of an irrational fear that the car will burst into flames.
  • Developing safety and reporting methods for automated cars will massively improve the ability of driven cars to avoid accidents, minimize damage and call for help.
  • Robot cars are coming, one way or another. As powerful as the legal pinheads are, the force of progress is simply too strong.

    Texas Linkorama

    Wednesday, December 12th, 2012
  • The idea of building gondolas in Austin strikes me as a really dumb. Gondols are slow and would take up lots of space for the number of passengers they transport. Texans aren’t big on mass transit to begin with (the light rail system is likely to be a flop). And what do you need a gondola for in a city that is really flat? This crosses me as a solution in search of a problem. And if it doesn’t have high ridership, it’s bad for the environment. And expensive.
  • Down with homework!
  • I always suspected that the high I got off parenting was an evolutionary thing. I find these things intriguing and fascinating. Much of what we feel in life: compassion, empathy, love, tenderness is the result of millions of years of evolution making us into creatures that look for the species rather than ourselves.
  • A really good post on the Jefferson slave thing. Also, highly recommended on the subject: Ta-Nehisi Coates. Actually, TNC is just recommended, full stop.
  • One day, parenting authorities will get it through thick skulls like that fun physical activities are good for children even when they involve a low amount of risk.
  • Ah, peak oil. These days, the biggest energy concern is that we won’t run out of fossil fuels and that global warming will be worse than feared.
  • A fascinating story from NPR about how our image of Jesus has changed with social norms.
  • While it strikes me that global helium supplies are a legitimate concern, the idea that our technical needs in 50 years will be the same as they are now crosses me as silly. Think about the chemicals that were important 50 years ago. Are we in the grips of a global lead shortage?
  • Mathematical Malpractice Watch: Weather Fatalities

    Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

    This came to my attention a month ago. I drafted a post, forgot about it in the election/migraine event horizon but now want to get it out my drafts section. I think it’s worth posting because we are likely to hear more of this from the more hysterical environmental wing.

    The chart, from Ezra Klein’s usually excellent Wonkblog, purports to show a steep rise in weather-related fatalities in recent years.

    It doesn’t show anything of the kind.

    First of all, what it shows is a slight decline or flat trend with a few recent spikes caused by a 90′s heat wave, Hurricane Katrina and last year’s tornados. Now maybe you can argue that we should pay more attention to these in the era of global warming because they may be related (or may not). I agree. However, the long term trend in almost all categories is down — way down. Deaths from lightning strikes are down by over two-thirds over the last 70 years. That’s real progress.

    But the progress is even better than the graph shows. The graph makes a huge blindingly obvious error; one that Klein’s readers jumped on immediately: it does not account for population growth. The first data point is from a sample of 140 million people while the last if from a sample of 310 million. To compare raw figures is simply ridiculous (and, indeed, Klein’s co-blogger later tweeted a version with death rates that was far less dire and showed dramatic declines in weather-related fatalities).

    The third problem is less obvious but potentially the worst one. The plot includes deaths from heat, cold, “winter fatalities”, rip currents and wind. Heat deaths are particularly important to the point Wonkblog is making since, presumably, global warming will result in more deaths from heat waves and drought.

    The problem is that the NOAA, from whose data the graph is taken, did not track heat deaths until 1986. The same goes for many deaths in the “other” category. Cold fatalities were not tracked until 1988. Winter fatalities until 1986. Rip currents until 2002. Wind deaths until 1995. No correction, none whatsover, is made for the incomplete data that spans the first five or six decades of NOAA’s sample.

    It is simply not sensible to treat the data as though there were zero deaths from heat and other categories before the mid-1980′s. In fact, there are many reasons — the spread of air-conditioning for example — to suspect that heat-related deaths were much much higher in the past. It would defy common sense for the sharp reductions in fatalities from tornados, hurricanes and lightning (not to mention earthquakes) to not reflected in the statistics for other weather-related deaths.

    But let’s not assume. Let’s go to the record. The data start in 1940, which usefully omits one of the greatest environmental calamities in American history: the Dust Bowl. Thousands died; at least 5000 in one 1936 heat wave alone. Another massive drought hit in the 1950′s. A 1972 heat wave killed 900 people. A 1980 heat wave killed 1700 people. All of those happened before the NOAA tracked the number of heat-related deaths. None are in the sample.

    To be completely honest, the NOAA data seems a poor resource for this kind of study. It apparently does not include the 1988 drought, recording only 47 heat-related deaths in that two-year period. But it does include the 1995 and 1999 heat waves. I have no idea what their criteria are. I suspect they are counting deaths from specific short-term heat waves rather than broad massive events like the 88-89 drought. That’s fine as far as it goes. But if your attempt to quantify long-term trends in weather-related deaths ignores droughts; if it ignores the God-damned Dust Bowl, I would submit that you are looking at the wrong data.

    So, in the end, the claim that we are getting more weather-related fatalities than ever is, at least in this case, based on a heavily biased poorly understood sample that barely supports the conclusion

    Saturday Linkorama

    Saturday, November 3rd, 2012
  • A great letter on the situation at Penn State, from the former Paterno Chair.
  • This article, sent to me by several, argues that China will be a benevolent world power. I found it ludicrous. not only do I not think China will become a dominant world power (there are still massive areas of abject poverty and they are aging too fast); I find the historical analysis from this sinophile to be absurdly optimistic about what they would do with power.
  • Color photos of Nazi-occupied Poland.
  • Heart-rending notes pinned to abandoned babies.
  • This article, about Chris Christie and Bruce Springsteen, came out this summer. But I found it amusing and kind of touching.
  • This story, about the explosion of solitary confinement in this country, is a must-read.
  • I knew that music has sucked since the 1980′s (#1). #5 is one we explore in Music Theory class.
  • The Hormone Vote

    Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

    CNN has an article up that is … kinda dumb:

    While the campaigns eagerly pursue female voters, there’s something that may raise the chances for both presidential candidates that’s totally out of their control: women’s ovulation cycles.

    You read that right. New research suggests that hormones may influence female voting choices differently, depending on whether a woman is single or in a committed relationship.

    Please continue reading with caution. Although the study will be published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science, several political scientists who read the study have expressed skepticism about its conclusions.

    Basically, this new study claims — actually, rediscovers — that women in relationships favor Romney by 19 points and single women favor Obama by 33. Their new claim is that when those women are ovulating, those percentages jump by as many as 20 points.

    This has, for obvious reasons, caused quite a stir in the blogosphere and Twitter. Unfortunately, the primary reaction is for people to clutch their copies of McKinnon and scream at some Texas professor for daring to suggest that women are nothing but hormone-addled idiots, even though the professor in question says nothing of the kind. And that reaction is kind of unfortunate. Because in their zeal to proclaim that women are completely unaffected by their hormones, people are missing the real reason why the article is dumb and should just be snickered at and then ignored.

    First, the number of women we are dealing with is small. I don’t have access to the study and their exact numbers but they studied 502 women total. If by “change of 20 points*” they mean that women in relationships went from 59-41 Romney to 69-31 Romney, that’s a total of about 25 women changing their minds. And a similar number among single women. That … really doesn’t strike me as a statistically significant sample, especially given how volatile polls are known to be anyway and how uncertain the date of ovulation can be.

    (*A critical point that is missing from the article is whether that jump is 20 points in differential or absolute (i.e, from 59-41 to 69-31 or 79-21). It’s the difference between 25 women changing their minds — a small number — and 50, a more interesting number. I also note the phrase “as much as 20 points”, which suggests that 20 points is at the outer edge of a very large statistical uncertainty and the actual difference is much smaller. This is why I would like to see the actual study.)

    Second, it’s difficult to pin down an a priori reason why a woman’s menstrual cycle might affect her voting. In the absence of clear information, we can only speculate. And this is where CNN and the researchers really flounder badly:

    Here’s how Durante explains this: When women are ovulating, they “feel sexier,” and therefore lean more toward liberal attitudes on abortion and marriage equality. Married women have the same hormones firing, but tend to take the opposite viewpoint on these issues, she says.

    “I think they’re overcompensating for the increase of the hormones motivating them to have sex with other men,” she said. It’s a way of convincing themselves that they’re not the type to give in to such sexual urges, she said.

    It’s true enough that women feel “sexier” when ovulating and are known to change their behavior (more likely to have sex, more likely to wear skimpy clothing, etc.). That’s all well-established biology. How this translates into political behavior isn’t clear at all. It seems that the researchers came up with one half of a dubious idea (“women feel sexier so they want abortion to be legal”) and then had to scramble to find the other half (“um, so married women are … repressing?”). That’s nice spit-balling but it’s no more valid than saying that when women are menstruating, they get mad and say, “Screw that guy, I ain’t voting for him any more!” You can basically shove anything you want into that information vacuum and call it “science”.

    Something important jumped out at me on a second reading: no one quoted in the article is a biologist or any other kind of scientist. The study author is a Professor of Marketing. They also quote Professors of Political “Science” and Women’s and Gender Studies. I would hazard that maybe the Professor of Marketing knows something about statistics. But this whole things reeks of the Scientific Peter Principle: poorly done studies are the ones most likely to get attention because their flaws produced amazing results.

    Here’s $0.02 from someone as equally unqualified to look into this as anyone quoted in the article. I suspect this effect, such as it is, is small, even smaller than the 10% they are claiming. I also suspect that this study was conducted some time ago when a lot of the voters were undecided and might have been a little torn between the two candidates. Undecided voters have a tendency to sway with every breeze that blows. Under those circumstances, it’s possible that the hormone kick at ovulation and the resulting surge in self-confidence might make women a little firmer in their political convictions one way or the other. Or, conversely, that the effects of PMS and/or menstruation make women a little less confident in their choices. One test you could do? See if “ovulation effect” diminishes as we get closer to the election and more people learn about the candidates and make up their minds.

    The gripping hand here is that this entire thing is pointless trivia as far as elections go. You see, women’s menstrual cycles tend to be random. So the percentage of women who are ovulating at any one moment is a constant. So the net effect of this on the vote?

    Zero.

    Update: I just slapped myself in the head for not saying this in the main text: where the hell was the group of menopausal women used as a control?

    Wednesday Linkorama

    Wednesday, October 17th, 2012
  • Distracted parenting is a problem, obviously. But, despite the horrible tragedies described, it’s not clear how big a problem it is. Mobile devices free parents up to do more things with kids and to supervise them more. I will let on, however, that they can occupy your attention. I was at a park when a kid broke his arm and didn’t notice immediately because of my phone. Don’t know if it would have been different with my kid.
  • I’m really looking forward to reading Nate Silver’s book.
  • Statues at the bottom of the sea. Amazing. And heart-breaking, when you think of what they represent.
  • I think this author has a good point that the Star Wars universe is likely illiterate. However, I think it’s less a conscious “where is modernism driving us” thing than a reflection of Star Wars being built on medieval narratives and cliches.
  • An interesting take on one of the more panned documentaries of the year. It does seem that people have a problem accepting that being anti-Big Education is not the same as being anti-education. Or even anti-teacher.
  • This story made my day. This is religion at its finest.
  • Whatever the political fallout of Benghazi, the story of the attack is an amazing one.
  • This is NOT the way to fight global warming. And they say all the greed and abuse is on the skeptic side.
  • Tuesday Linkorama

    Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012
  • Paul Ryan and the Republicans appear to be backing down on DADT. About time.
  • Apparently, there is a new blood test that could detect some types of cancer.
  • Yeah, I never thought much of the writing fever approach to teaching writing skills. You learn to play music by learning scales. You learn writing by learning vocabulary, grammar and sentence construction.
  • A fascinating profile of one of the CIA’s operatives. What’s telling is precisely why we provide aide to loathsome regimes.
  • Hmmm. Kids getting their grandparents’ Holocaust tattoos.
  • Toys. In. Spaaaaace.

    Thursday, September 27th, 2012

    I love this:

    The coolness and wow factors are there, yes. So is the idea that this sort of thing can be done so cheaply and easily. But the real gem is the look on that kid’s face. This is something he will never forget. I have to steal this idea for my kid one day.

    Changing Opinion

    Saturday, September 22nd, 2012

    While I find this study, in which people are fooled into arguing against previously-held opinions, interesting, I think many bloggers/tweeters are missing the critical point. On almost all issues, people are of two minds. It is rare that someone encounters an issue where they can not see the other side at all (we call those people “fanatics”). Even people who have a very strong opinion can usually see where the other side is coming from. And, on many issues, we’re kind of on the fence.

    The gripping hand is that, unless someone is really passionate about an issue, they haven’t really thought through their arguments very well. They’ve mostly reacted, usually by agreeing with whomever they perceive to be their “side”. And when they do think about the issue, they tend to argue toward whatever side they have already picked.

    As I say so often: human being are OK at thinking; but we’re dead awesome at rationalizing.

    What the exercise does is not shift their moral compass. What it forces them to do is what we used to do in debate club and what I still try to do while writing blog posts: try to argue the other side. By trying to think of the arguments the opposition might raise, you strengthen your own arguments. And sometimes, you realize that the other side was right to begin with.

    So, no, the results are not terribly surprising. But they are interesting.

    New Year Linkorama

    Monday, September 17th, 2012
  • I fear that Megan McArdle is right and that we are facing an awful bust in higher education. I recently that Emory is cutting whole departments. And we’ve been squeezed. At some point, the massive amounts of money poring into higher ed have to reach their asymptote, no? This is going to be ugly.
  • A fascinating article about why the atheist movement is so male-dominated. I won’t pretend I have an answer to this. I have to think about it quite a bit.
  • Was Obama elected by hordes of welfare recipients? Nope. This is, I think, a big reason many conservatives oppose efforts for mandatory voting. I oppose it myself, but for different reasons.
  • A great article on the state of science writing, the tendency of poor research to grab headlines (because poor research produces surprising bogus results) and the beauty of debunking. A must read.
  • A truly horrible story of isolation and psychological abuse being used to “discipline” kids. Honestly, we were better off with paddelings.
  • Why Science?

    Friday, September 14th, 2012

    As an astronomer, I’m always hit with the “what’s the practical use of this” question. My general response is, “Well, what’s the practical use of the Sistine Chapel?” Life can’t all be about practical down to earth things. There has to be beauty and art and discovery and awe. All our practicality has to be oriented toward something beyond ourselves.

    But there’s also this. Sometimes just monkeying around with science produces unexpected insight. So research into jellyfish produces an AIDS treatment; screwing around with microwaves produces lasers and going to the moon produces remote sensors to monitor patients.

    It’s a big universe out there and we’ve uncovered only a tiny fraction of its secrets. We should keep digging because we never know what’s going to turn up.

    Labor Day Linkorama

    Monday, September 3rd, 2012
  • The latest population panic. You would think that having been wrong over and over and over and over and over again for the last five decades would teach these guys some humility. You would think wrong.
  • Five other sports cheats.
  • Thanks Cracked. Thanks a ton. Now that you’ve brought this year old story to my attention, I have something in my eye.
  • See this is why I get nervous about digital content. You don’t own digital content. You only borrow it.
  • Friday Linkorama

    Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

    Long-form

  • I encountered this problem with my own child. Some pediatricians are simply obsessed with child growth charts, even to the point of stupidity. We had one pediatrician — who we quickly dumped — freak out because Abby was supposedly way too short for age. It turned out they’d put her height in as centimeters instead of inches. It was simply bizarre watching this medical professional insist that our daughter, one of the tallest in her class, was dangerously short. We quickly switched to one who uses the charts for reference but is not defined by them.
  • The most telling part of this story, about Iran banning women from certain college majors, is the note that Iranian women were massively outperforming their male counterparts. Can’t have that, can we?! Looks like the Islamists are figuring out what the Communists did: when you educate a person, they are halfway to freedom.
  • I’m of two minds about peoples who have not contacted civilization. On the one hand, I don’t like forcing civilization on people. On the other, there seems a bit of condescension in the “don’t disturb their culture” mentality.
  • This article, in which Megan McArdle argues that we like to be conned, seems dead accurate to me. Gregg Easterbrook has made the same argument. Bubbles don’t happen because people are stupid. Bubbles happen because people are greedy. They know, deep down, it’s an illusion; but they keep hoping the roof won’t cave in on them.
  • Cats the Killers

    Friday, August 17th, 2012

    I’ll pop up from vacation just to headdesk over people’s discomfort over the recent revelation that cats kill a lot of little creatures.

    Um, they’re cats. Cats are predators. They have an instinct to kill. That instinct is impossible to surpress and shouldn’t be suppressed. Even the most domesticated cat can never be sure that their next meal is going to show up. Killing prey, even if they abandon it, keeps their skills sharp in case they ever need them. If they didn’t have this instinct, they would have gone extinct millions of years ago.

    As I said on Twitter, if you want a small furry critter without a killer instinct, get a hamster.